Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Native Prairie Plants - Saskatoon

We, today, often forget the direct dependency our forebears had on the abundant goods and services Nature provided. One jewel on the prairies, a truly multi-purpose plant, was the Saskatoon bush (Amelanchier alnifolia).

This tall shrub forms colonies in coulees and open woodlands from north central United States, across the Canadian prairies through northern Canada to Alaska. In May it produces racemes of white flowers 8-12 mm across that by early summer have matured into a sweet and juicy berry-like fruit which may be up to 10 mm in diameter.

Perhaps the most important vegetable food for the Blackfoot, and later to prairie settlers, the berries were used in great quantities in soups, stew, and meats. They were steamed, mashed and then dried in large “bricks” that could have pieces chipped off to use as need.  Meat, mixed with melted fat and saskatoon fruit (pemmican) would keep for months. The fruit was often mixed with the leaves or roots to make tea and the stems, twigs and bark were used medicinally. So important was this food that the people moved their camps to areas of high production. Manyberries in southeastern Alberta is an example of one such appropriately named location.

Beyond its use as food, the saskatoon bush offered a ready source of hard, straight-grained wood valued as material for arrows, pipe stems, basket rims and tipi closure pins.

And modern science has confirmed what earlier people instinctively knew: saskatoons are not only good tasting, but good for you, being rich in antioxidants, minerals and vitamins. In the 1970s commercial saskatoon orchards began popping up and today it is estimated that there are between 250 and 300 commercial growers in the prairie provinces.

Can’t recognize the saskatoon bush?  The Galt Museum & Archives garden of Native Plants has labeled our plants with both common and scientific names.  We hope that as you stroll along through the Lethbridge river valley and coulees, you will recognize the plants you pass.

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